The Wrong Theory. Roughness as a lure, in design and media

In the age of total algorithmization, the roughness of a performance, and even the mistake, becomes the factor of surplus value. It is only wrongness that proves the existence of rightness. Or maybe even more: it is wrongness that proves the very existence of things.

 

 Beautifully awkward Katy Perry Left Shark moment. – Shark Ex Machina. – Wrong
Olympic snowflake. – Perfectness alienates, roughness invites. – Human mistakes
and the cargo cult of robot journalists. – Give them bait. – The famous Degas’s horse head cut. – Exploit this. – Wrong means exists.

 

Beautifully awkward Katy Perry Left Shark moment

The Super Bowl is one of the most spectacular and expensive TV broadcasts in the world. It usually makes the internet buzz with new viruses and memes related to Super Bowl ads or the Halftime Show. Mocking Halftime Show stars’ slip-ups has even become a sort of Super Bowl tradition. Remember poor Beyoncé’s awkward moves in 2013? They excited hordes of scoffers and inspired a tsunami of Photoshop mockery, like this one.

The audience seemed to be waiting for something similar from Katy Perry, appointed star of 2015’s Super Bowl Halftime. Alas (or not), Katy Perry herself offered no such material for mockery. Instead, Left Shark’s dance happened.

The audience rejoiced at something it had been waiting for. A tornado of sneers swept over the internet. Here are some examples: Katy Perry’s Sharks Were The Best Part Of The Super Bowl. The Katy Perry sharks are all of us. The sharks became famous immediately.

It is hard to say what exactly was so terrible in those sharks’ dancing. Well, yes, they moved slightly unsynchronized, but still pretty lovely, reminding me of a dance of toddlers at their first kindergarten Christmas performance.

 

Shark Ex Machina

I think here is the clue: a minor asynchronism in the Sharks’ dance caused a huge dissonance in the people’s perception of the irreproachably well organized show.

The Halftime show lasts approximately half an hour, yet another ten minutes go towards the assembling and dissembling of the stage. Nevertheless, it included several songs, several dress changes, Katy Perry’s ride on a huge animatronic lion, her other ride, with a star far above spectators, arresting pyrotechnical effects, dozens of back-up performers, and so on and so forth. And here it is – the awkward, baby-like Sharks’ moves occurred amid the perfectly managed mega-show.

Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; Recording artist Katy Perry performs during halftime of the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT: USATSI-185920 ORIG FILE ID: 20150201_sal_aa9_110.JPG

Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; Recording artist Katy Perry performs during halftime of the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It seems to me that Left Shark’s blunder exposes an interesting trick that can and should be exploited on purpose in media, design, and performance arts. What would that show have been without the Left Shark moment? Just another elaborate Halftime Show. Left Shark’s awkward moves added some very humanly flawed ingredients into a highly automatized, almost machinated organism. And this incidental addition made the show special for the moment and for history.

In the epoch of technologization, gadgetization, standardization, and automatization, everything that falls out of order can grab attention and, therefore, become attractive. Amid all the smooth, only the rough catches the eye. Perfection increases the visibility of imperfections – and, therefore, their value.

 

Wrong Olympic snowflake

If such roughness has value, it should be used as it is destined – to attract attention. And this is being done, sometimes. For example, during another mega show, the Sochi Olympics’ opening ceremony, one of the five snowflakes failed to unfold into an Olympic ring, as it had been designed to do. Considering that these Games were to be the most expensive in history, this failure had been a cause to sneer, at first.

Snowflake

But the ceremony producer, the greatest boss of Russian TV, Konstantin Ernst, was smart enough to turn the failure into value; in his case – into the memorable snowflake on his chest.

Ernst

This brilliant solution not just fixed the problem, but used it for good. The opening ceremony was grandiose, full of magnificent and expensive (of course) hi-tech effects. But it was the unfolded snowflake that ensured that the show would go down in Olympics history.

Similar to the Left Shark moment, the Snowflake moment occurred accidentally. But it was immediately and deliberately capitalized upon. By the way, Katy Perry, too, realized a bit later that the Shark moment happened to be the most talked-about episode of her Super Bowl show. Not her songs, or her dresses, or her on-lion and with-star rides. Having realized this, she tried to trademark Left Shark’s iconic design (unsuccessfully).

 

Perfectness alienates, roughness invites

Moments of roughness, gathered from around the world, give material to big shows, like America’s Funniest Home Videos. It is these moments that create traffic for most of the amateur videos on YouTube. What if the same thing were done on purpose? What if well managed roughness, being brought into well staged smoothness, turned out to be a good tool to excite the Viral Editor, this collective Internet being?

Writing about web-design that is destined to involve people, Clay Shirky in his Cognitive Surplus uses such a metaphor. “…consider the kinds of kitchens you see in photographs in House Beautiful and Better Homes and Gardens,” writes Shirky, “designed to a fare-thee-well with a place for everything and everything in its place. My kitchen is not like that. (Perhaps, yours isn’t either.) But if you were a guest at a dinner party, you likely wouldn’t dare set foot in a House Beautiful kitchen, because the design doesn’t exactly scream Come on in and help! My kitchen, on the other hand, does scream that – you wouldn’t feel much compunction about grabbing a knife and dicing some carrots if you felt like it.”

Kitchen-Perfect

Such a trend is coming: an advanced professional designer may add a little bit of amateurishness to their masterpiece, just to be closer to people. Something similar, a trick of self-depreciation, has been used by politicians performing the role of “the guy next door”, though in reality they belong with the elites.

Perfection alienates any product in human perception. And vice versa, imperfection lets audiences in. Nowadays, with automatization and improvement in the performance of everything, the level of perfectness in everything has been increasing, and so has the value of the small imperfections inside the perfectness.

 

Human mistakes and the cargo cult of robot journalists

Moreover, in the age of total algorithmization, the roughness, and even the mistake becomes… the factor of surplus value. For example, in journalism, the writing algorithms have already begun competing with humans. When robot journalism surpasses human journalism in quantity (already almost done) and quality (it’ll take time), it’s exactly the mistake that will create the peculiarity and the value of human journalism, strange though it may seem for now. It is not without purpose that many mass media outlets have already been playing exaggeratedly with their mistakes, corrections, retractions, and clarifications.

Thinking robot

The error means humanness…. if not made by a robot. I foresee that the developers of writing algorithms, chasing the human quality of biological journalists, will learn how to put human-like mistakes in the code for robots to simulate humanness. Thus, robots will seek to be not better, but worse – to match the humans. Alan Turing spins in his grave.

More than this, once in the future, when robots become not just writers but readers as well, the need for “humanny” mistakes will vanish, but mistakes still will be used by robots, similarly to today’s use of the mechanical clicking sound in the smartphone camera, though there are not any such mechanical parts in it, and the majority of the users don’t even know where this sound came from… Thus, craftily induced human-like mistakes will become a cargo cult in the robotic community… But I digress.

 

Give them bait

A Soviet urban legend comes to my mind. The director of the cult Soviet comedy The Diamond Arm, Leonid Gaidai, allegedly used the depiction of a nuclear blast for censors to let them to get their job done. The Soviet government only allowed nuclear symbolism to be used for propaganda purposes, and it was considered inappropriate to exploit it “just for fun”. Gaidai wanted simply to protect the rest of the material from the iron hand of censors by palming off to them something obviously inappropriate.

Diamond Arm Взрыв

The nuclear blast footage was a thorn in the flesh, completely off discourse. The plan worked out; the inappropriate footage grabbed the attention of the first and most important viewers – censors. Censors bit the bait, cut out the episode, and everyone remained satisfied, with no harm done to the film.

So, the roles of well managed roughness may be various. To control your critics, give them minor roughness, insignificant for you.

 

The famous Degas’s horse head cut

DegasIn September 2014, Wired published a good article named “Why Getting It Wrong Is the Future of Design”. The article offers considerable historical and theoretic foundations for what the author (and the editor-in-chief of Wired), Scott Dadich, refers to as the Wrong Theory. He begins by discussing one of the most radical paintings by Edgar Degas, Jockeys Before the Race, painted in the late 1870s. Perfectly educated neoclassicist Degas all of a sudden put an asymmetrical vertical pole right in the foreground of his painting, cutting across one of the horse’s heads.

It was, no doubt, artistic jest, a slap in the face of common rules. Critics dropped down on the painter, but later, jests of such kind became an artistic tool.

Analyzing Degas’s outrageous transgression, Scott Dadich depicted the common evolution of rules across “every artistic and creative field” (I think, we can take it to much broader areas of human practices). At first, “practitioners dedicate themselves to inventing and improving the rules—how to craft the most pleasing chord progression, the perfectly proportioned building, the most precisely rendered amalgamation of rhyme and meter… But once a certain maturity has been reached, someone comes along who decides to take a different route. Instead of trying to create an ever more polished and perfect artifact, this rebel actively seeks out imperfection—sticking a pole in the middle of his painting, intentionally adding grungy feedback to a guitar solo, deliberately photographing unpleasant subjects. Eventually some of these creative breakthroughs end up becoming the foundation of a new set of aesthetic rules, and the cycle begins again.”

So, Degas deliberately created something unpleasing – in the then prevailing system of coordinates. Further, Scott Dadich suggests a kind of manifest of what he calls the Wrong Theory:

“All of this has resulted in a world where beautifully constructed tech is more powerful and more accessible than ever before… After years of experimentation, we have figured out what people like and settled on some rules… But there’s a downside to all this consensus—it can get boring…

This brings us to an important and exciting moment in the design of our technologies. We have figured out the rules of creating sleek sophistication. We know, more or less, how to get it right. Now, we need a shift in perspective that allows us to move forward. We need a pole right through a horse’s head… It’s time to stop figuring out how to do things the right way, and start getting it wrong.”

 

Exploit this

It is interesting to see how Scott Dadich has applied the Wrong Theory in his own artistic practice. In 2006, as a creative director at Wired, Dadich designed a cover that was perfectly stylized in its kind. But the editor had been demanding something else, some colours in the stylish gray design. After long arguing, after plenty of attempts, almost desperately, Scott added an awkward, flashy orange bar somewhere, with no on-spot linkage.

Wired cover“At the time, this represented a major creative breakthrough for me – the idea that intentional wrongness could yield strangely pleasing results,” reflected Scott. “Of course I was familiar with the idea of rule-breaking innovation—that each generation reacts against the one that came before it, starting revolutions, turning its back on tired conventions. But this was different. I wasn’t just throwing out the rulebook and starting from scratch. I was following the rules, then selectively breaking one or two for maximum impact.”

“I began referring to this idea—intentionally making ‘bad’ design choices—as Wrong Theory, and I started applying it in little ways to all of WIRED’s pages. Pictures that were supposed to run large, I made small. Where type was supposed to run around graphics, I overlapped the two. Headlines are supposed to come at the beginning of stories? I put them at the end. I would even force our designers to ruin each other’s ‘perfect’ layouts.”

And what was originally almost an emotional jest then become an artistic take, that Scott Dadich started noticing here and there (in his brilliant article, he offers a selection of such cases).

Here is a lightmark on a picture of a jazzman, normally considered to be a defect, but, in fact, it imbues the picture with an even more ecstatic sensation. And, by the way, the lightmark makes the picture slightly amateur-like, homemade, taken by those, who, like you, came to listen to the music, not to shoot the musician for a magazine.

Wired musicianWired SindyScott Dadich underlined that this strategy can be successful only applied amid broader work that is perfectly made. “You need to know the rules, really master their nuance and application, before you can break them.”

Wrong should be something, not everything (it would have another effect).

Captured by the theory, Scott Dadich found research confirming that something unexpected activates the centers of pleasure in our brains, if it has been placed in a row of things expected. “Think of Cindy Crawford’s mole or Joaquin Phoenix’s scar,” he writes. “Both people are stunning, but they stand out for their so-called imperfections. A better thought experiment might be to put that child in a room with 99 symmetrical faces and one asymmetrical one. Which one do you think she’ll be drawn to?”

 

Wrong means exists

Throughout history, artists and innovators have advanced their fields by making deliberately “wrong” choices.

Strictly speaking, violations of the rules, including the use of roughness of all kinds, have become a widespread artistic method, since Degas’s time perhaps. But today we can speak not just about artistic jest, but about the tool of social engineering. Not without purpose Aldous Huxley relates historic time of his New Brave World to the epoch “after Ford”. The industrial conveyor was invented by Henry Ford to increase efficiency of production. But its efficiency had a side effect – standardized production created the culture of mass consumption. (Thus, the conveyor turned to be another medium shaping society in a certain way.)

Standards serve to save efforts – in production and in consumption as well. No need to learn how to produce or consume the same or similar products. But what fits standards becomes invisible. Electric outlets seem the same everywhere, and this is very convenient. You realize the price of this convenience when faced with the other type of outlet, say, in Europe. Actually, you understand the very existence of electric plugs and outlets only when you are faced the different types. The only way to “experience” the light switch in your room is not finding it in the familiar place.

It is only wrongness that proves the existence of rightness. Or maybe even more: it is wrongness that proves the very existence of things. (Here, we closely approach an answer to the dilemma of theodicy.) How could you know whether you live or don’t, if you haven’t been feeling pain?

The conveyor, the physically moving belt, borrowed by Ford from a meat packing factory, with its moving hooks, gave us the idea of a sequence of steps as a rule for organizing meanings and processes. The industrial cult of the conveyor lasts in the postindustrial cult of the algorithm. The algorithm is a digital offspring of the conveyor in the postindustrial era. The algorithm is the pure spirit of standardization.

An error is something that the conveyor and algorithm seek to avoid (if they aren’t aimed specially to produce errors, like malware is).The error destroys the invisible prison of standardization, unleashes a personal attitude towards what appears as roughness, or the mistake, or the aberrations, or the amateurishness. Surrounded by algorithms, we will increasingly likely react to their malfunction.

That is why TV and web audiences were impressed not as much by Katy Perry’s performance as by her back-up shark’s awkward dance. It is the lesson that should be learnt by show-biz producers: follow Degas, do it on purpose.

So, here is the editor’s tool for media (and blogging), or the artist’s tool for design in the broad sense. Use the minor roughness amid prevailing smoothness to catch the eye. Use a bit of amateurishness amid the perfectness of professionalism to let the audience in. In general, any project with a prevailing share of automation, to be attractive or at least visible, should contain a grain of lovely roughness.

(Actually, it does not even have to be lovely.)

 


For the last bit, here are several samples of artwork that have become viral thanks to the ‘well done wrongdoings’ inside them.

Vienna State Opera, funny ballet

Ballet is a high art, based on the perfectness of bodily expressions. Here is an example of the right, deliberate application of the Wrong Theory to make highly standardized practice attractive even for those who are not very much into it. This is a bit of well managed imperfection amid universally acknowledged irreproachability. I bet that reaching such a highly synchronized level of asynchronization is by order of magnitude harder than incorrectly performing the Sharks’ dance.

 

A back-up guy with a tambourine rocks

Here are lovely, talented, and no doubt professional singers singing a nice song. However, the video became viral because of a guy with a tambourine who seems not to participate much in performing the song but who really fires up. As people on the internet say about guys of that kind, “he made my day.” There is no special task for a tambourine in the song, so the jovial fellow has been used for nothing more than to rock exceptionally. So, just add such a back-up character to your video, or to any performance (with some precaution, as he can easily kill the main plot; but here, it didn’t happen, fortunately).


The article was originally published in Russian on Slon.ru in March 2015.

Andrey Miroshnichenko

Author of Human as media. The emancipation of authorship – available on Amazon

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Categories: Future and Futurology, Media ecology

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